Thanks to Ed Hart, Kentucky Kingdom rolls on, heading toward a 30-year anniversary and a goal of 1 million visitors
By Kevin Dazey
Louisville, KY — Kentucky Kingdom and Hurricane Bay have a bright future after completing a fourth season under the direction of President and CEO Ed Hart. The perseverance of Hart and his team led to the May 2014 reopening of an amusement park that had been dormant for five years and had an uncertain future. The current ownership by Kentucky Kingdom LLP, consisting of Hart and three partners, was approved for a long-term lease agreement making for a public/private partnership in operating the 63-acre amusement and waterpark site.
New and revitalized attractions and a who’s who of suppliers
The revitalized Kentucky Kingdom and Hurricane Bay came back to life with new attractions, rejuvenated existing rides, and a greatly expanded Hurricane Bay waterpark. New and improved features at Hurricane Bay included an adventure river (from Aquatic Development Group – ADG), new waterslide towers (from ProSlide), and a refreshed family wave lagoon (built and renovated by ADG). Existing rides coaxed back to full operational status include the 1990 Thunder Run wooden roller coaster (supplied by Dinn Corporation), a 150-foot Ferris wheel (from Vekoma), and quite a few other rides – all open once again and entertaining guests. An area devoted to rides for children called King Louie’s Playland would see the addition of four new rides.
PHOTOS: Lightning Run. Courtesy Chance Rides.
The most notable of the new attractions came in the form of a steel roller coaster from Chance Rides. Named Lightning Run, this would be the first Hyper GT-X model by Chance, an ideal complement to the wood-tracked Thunder Run. Notable features include a 100-foot lift hill, an 80-degree first drop, 120 degree overbanked turns, along with a redesigned track style and vehicles enhancing rider comfort.
A new point-of-sale system would cap off the major upgrades and additions of 2014. The hard road to reopening paid off immediately; attendance was enthusiastic and encouraging from the first month. With season one just beginning, plans were already outlined for the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
The sophomore year kept the momentum going as 2015 brought back more existing rides, including a suspended roller coaster (from Vekoma) and Raging Rapids River Ride. This was in addition to a new 130-foot swing ride (ARM Rides), a spinning pendulum thriller (from Zamperla), and two junior-sized rides (also Zamperla).
2016 was another very good year in the major thrill ride category, but this did not mean other areas were overlooked. More benches provided seating throughout the property, while food and retail were added in a formerly closed-off section. This season also saw a nice touch to the landscaping with the addition of QR labels located at many of the trees, shrubs, flower gardens, and ornamental grasses. This enabled guests to scan the labels using their smartphones to obtain information on a particular planting, a nice feature from the horticulture staff.
Turning to thrill rides, in 2016 Storm Chaser would be the second new coaster within the first three seasons of the re-opened park. The design, by Rocky Mountain Construction (RMC) would utilize structure from the former dueling Twisted Twins wooden coaster making for another successful wood-to-steel conversion, something RMC is quite well known for. A smart decision to partially reuse a defunct ride and tap the talent at RMC led to a powerful design that earned accolades for one of the best new rides of 2016.
2017 meant another year for park-wide enhancements and improvements. There’s no doubt the management team are committed to making Kentucky Kingdom a serious draw. Eye of the Storm, a 70-foot forwards/backwards looping thrill ride (from Larson International) made its debut, along with two more additions to King Louie’s Playland. A new train and track work on Thunder Run are helping preserve the aging woodie as it approaches three decades of service. As shown the last three seasons, it’s not strictly about the rides; rather, the whole, park-wide experience must meet a certain expectation level which in turn ensures guests return. Hurricane Bay saw new shade structures and lounge chairs on top of adding an additional entrance. Season pass processing and in-park purchases would become more efficient thanks to upgrades, and more ticket windows meant quicker park entry.
Interestingly, the relationship between Hart and Kentucky Kingdom began over a quarter-century ago with a similar situation, in which Hart was instrumental in reopening this very same park. It debuted in 1987 and lasted but one season. But the path to the 2014 reopening did not come easily, due to challenges securing a lease agreement, along with the repair and cleanup necessary to operate once again.
Kentucky Kingdom is adjacent to the Kentucky Exposition Center (home of the State Fair) and approximately five miles from downtown Louisville. Park operators do not own the property on which the park sits, nor do they own the rides and attractions, but rather lease from the State of Kentucky. This condition was partly responsible for the previous owner (Six Flags) withdrawing in 2010 after 12 seasons. That – and declining attendance – led to closing, despite previously drawing over one million annual visitors during Hart’s first go-round, before he sold the rights to operate in the late 1990s.
Kentucky Kingdom was not the only regional park to falter in the US in the 2000s. The year 2005 was the final run for AstroWorld (Houston, TX) while Six Flags New Orleans would have its last operating season that same year due to a devastating hurricane. After more than a century of fun and thrills Northeast Ohio’s Geauga Lake ended its run in 2007, leaving only a waterpark to continue for several more years until it eventually closed. Kentucky Kingdom (then Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom) would be next in February 2010, with a sudden announcement during the off-season.
While the other parks mentioned have never returned, Kentucky Kingdom has. But Ed Hart’s bid to operate the property again was not a done deal from the first proposal, even though Hart had a proven track record and was also responsible for reviving another shuttered park, Magic Springs (Hot Springs, AR). The progression toward reopening Kentucky Kingdom would stretch over a few years.
A lease agreement was approved in early 2013 by the Kentucky State Fair Board. Lease terms dictated the amount that was required to be initially invested into the park for reopening, a fixed amount between 2014 and 2016, and a minimum per year throughout the duration of the lease. This added up to an investment of over $40 million for the first three years. As of now the investment amount stands at $63 million.
Before construction and rehabilitation work began, a site evaluation was conducted by Weber Group, which had in-depth knowledge, having been a former partner in the park when it was first operated by Hart.
In the park’s earlier incarnation, Weber had remained on the team as the in-house and build arm that expanded the original layout from 10 acres to more than 60. “Tom and Donny Weber (and their staff) worked with Ed Hart on master planning, thematic elements, signage, restaurants, and retail,” says Weber spokesperson Adam McIntyre. “After Six Flags purchased the park, Weber continued their relationship with the property.” The work would continue until the unfortunate closing in 2010, then commence again a few years later.
“Weber Group reviewed the park after Ed Hart regained control,” says McIntyre. “We did cost estimating and became the general contractor, helping to revive a beloved park that had sat idle for so many years.” Besides being responsible for new buildings in the waterpark Weber renovated vital park structures in preparation for the reopening.
Mother Nature takes its toll rather quickly. As might be expected, a great deal of maintenance needed to be performed in order to get everything in proper shape again. “Before its reopening in 2014, the park had been long neglected and was in a very dilapidated state, but still had good ‘bones,’” according to Adam Birkner, Kentucky Kingdom Media and Communications Manager. “This is Mr. Hart’s third successful turnaround of a closed and abandoned park so he and his development team had the experience to know exactly where to start and what to do. The team has worked non-stop since 2013 to make Kentucky Kingdom and Hurricane Bay one of the premier parks in the region.”
The Technical Services Department at Kentucky Kingdom, comprised of mechanics, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and ride technicians, had their hands full with projects during the rebuilding phase. Surprisingly, a shuttle loop roller coaster was the only major ride removed, all others were carefully refurbished for 2014 or subsequent seasons.
Although the past was bumpy, Kentucky Kingdom now rolls on without signs of slowing down. “Kentucky Kingdom has been an important part of the Louisville community since 1990, when the park first opened under Ed Hart’s stewardship,” remarks Birkner. “We are pleased to note that the park draws more than 250,000 visitors from out-of-state each year – and of course this bolsters the tourism and hospitality industry, not only in the local community, but throughout the state as well. These out-of-state visitors are in addition to the approximately 600,000 Kentucky residents who visit the park each year.”
Birkner mentions a significant goal in sight, based on recent numbers one that is not too far away from reaching. “We will continue to invest in Kentucky Kingdom as we move forward. There are still many opportunities to reach guests throughout the surrounding region and across the country as we pursue our attendance goal of 1 million visitors.”
There’s a fondness for Kentucky Kingdom that Weber Group holds and no doubt others share with close ties. “Kentucky Kingdom has been a labor of love. Most folks at Weber Group have worked for them on one project or another. Tom and Donny laid the first bricks and we were heartbroken when the doors shut. So many seasonals and full-time staff lost their jobs,” said McIntyre. “Ed’s tenacity to re-open Kentucky Kingdom was a shot in the arm for the Bluegrass State and certainly for Weber Group who was able to continue providing a first-class experience for park guests.”
Birkner suggests more excitement is coming soon as the growth continues. For 2018 a classic flat ride from 1990 is being retired to make way for something similar and beyond that it will get even better. “In 2019, we will celebrate Kentucky Kingdom’s 30th anniversary and plan to introduce a spectacular new attraction commensurate with that important milestone.” •
Kevin Dazey has a mechanical engineering background and works in R&D at a manufacturing company in St. Louis. He writes about ride engineering, roller coasters and related topics for InPark. [email protected]